More Than Just a Run

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The past three years have proven to be a period of massive intellectual, social and personal transformation. That being said, there are still things left to accomplish as I launch into my final year at Middlebury. Finish the infamous Ben and Jerry’s Vermonster. Meet one student from each of the 50 states. Finally ask out that girl I’ve had a crush on since freshman year. My Middlebury bucket list is just about at the point of saturation. While most aspirations have and will likely to continue to collect dust, the opportunity presented itself last week to realize one of the most daunting line items – Run the Trail Around Middlebury, more commonly known as the TAM, in its entirety.

For 16 miles, the TAM weaves through forests, roads, and farmland in its circumnavigation around the village of Middlebury. And depending on whose using them, the paths can take on manifold identities. It becomes an outdoor classroom in the eyes of local naturalists, who inform residents and students alike of the natural ecology. Likewise, Middlebury College identifies the TAM as a symbol of environmental stewardship, and as such, is committed to trail design and maintenance. What can be appreciated for its academic applications can also be more recreationally enjoyed by runners, hikers, bikers, snowshoes, and cross-country skiers. The rolling and vibrant Vermont landscape provides a breathtaking backdrop for trail-goers. At the very least – as I learned the hard way – it offers some solace for those braving the full 16-mile challenge.

Posters for the 24th annual TAM Trek, a fundraising initiative to support maintenance expenses, began appearing around campus about a week before the race. I consider myself a pretty athletic individual, but registering for the event without any  long-distance running experience whatsoever seemed more than a bit ill advised. Making matters even more intimidating, the peers who I recruited to join me just happened to be either accomplished marathon runners or collegiate track athletes.

Race day quickly arrived, and at 7:00 AM, all full-TAM participants congregated at the college’s golf course. There was little fanfare accompanying our start. In typical Vermont style, curious livestock, groaning agricultural machinery, and a nascent sunrise constituted the spectators, the wild applause and the television broadcast, respectively. And instead of a dramatic horn signaling the start of the race, the event coordinator simply encouraged us to start “whenever we wanted.” The runners, albeit thrown by the somewhat anticlimactic exposition, heeded these instructions and took off onto the course.

The subsequent miles and miles…and miles formed a narrative colored with moments of introspection, community and comraderie:

Mile 3 // Scanning my “competition” as we settle into our respective positions, I notice quite the hodgepodge of demographics. Interspersed with us students were professors, faculty members, Middlebury residents and even a couple canines (one of whom I was convinced was Air Bud). Running really is the great equalizer. Our common objective gave way to a profound sense of community. Whatever obligations or identities were cast aside in pursuit of crossing that finish line together. As I was conceptualizing this in my head, I found myself flanked by my former chemistry professor and a local running enthusiast. Introductions were briefly exchanged, and aside from a brief “What do you do?” conversation, there was suddenly nothing separating a renowned synthetic organic chemist from a small-town storeowner. It was truly a meaningful moment to have witnessed such tangible community, despite me first having to cope with the fact that my middle-aged, nerdy, lanky professor was matching my pace. In my defense, he is far more decorated as a long-distance runner and even even authors his own trailrunning blog, called “The Middlebury Trailrunner.”

Mile 6 // A tight wooded path feeds into an expansive tract of farmland. Set against the Green Mountains and littered with grazing cows, the picturesque scene before us led us to break out in a chorus of “The Hills Are Alive”, only with fewer aprons and prancing. Unfortunately, the elation ended rather abruptly, when I managed to sink my feet into two feet of cow dung.

Mile 12 // The initial adrenaline surge has worn off. I have poop caked all the way up my leg. Out of some perverse version of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” we misread a trailhead and had to re-trace our steps for about a mile and a half. Why am I doing this again? I was just about at the point of resignation until something amazing happened. Suddenly, a profound sense of awareness overtook me. The leaves crackling beneath my feet, my cadenced breathing, the colors of autumn – All these sensory stimuli became heightened and magnified. Nature and I, as it seemed, were in perfect synchrony. What I was experiencing was the elusive “Runner’s high.” Being a hard sciences major, I know this phenomenon from a strictly physiological standpoint – It represents the upregulation of endorphin secretion when glycogen stores are depleted, thus staving off pain sensations with temporary feelings of euphoria and exhilaration. In this moment, however, I was absorbed in an experience far more intangible, far more beautiful than a simple endocrinal pathway.

 Mile 16 // Two and half hours have elapsed, and the finish is finally in view. A crowd of community members, students and faculty cheered us through our final steps, after which I collapsed under my own weight. Physically drained yet personally fulfilled, I accept a hand and a cider doughnut from my middle-aged, nerdy, lanky chemistry professor. Yes, in a shot to my perceived fitness level, he did beat me…

It is befitting that the TAM encircles the whole of Middlebury. The trails delineate the heart of our community, where the college and the town share a mutual awareness and investment in each other. To say that “town-gown” relations are good suggests that members of the academic and non-academic population happily co-exist, but still retain their own identities. Running the trails alongside community members, alongside faculty reminded me not of these differences, but of the common thread between us – We proudly call this place home.

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